Pakistan, US tensions spike after border closure

ISLAMABAD – Hundreds of US and NATO trucks carrying fuel and other supplies for troops in Afghanistan lie idle. Dramatic images of Taleban attacks on these convoys are splashed across front pages in this anti-American country with a US-allied government.

Pakistan’s shutting of a key supply line for coalition troops in Afghanistan and the apparent ease with which militants are attacking the stranded convoys are shaking an already uncomfortable relationship between Washington and Islamabad.

The tension comes just as Washington is stepping up its shadow war on militants harboured in Pakistan’s border regions. CIA missile attacks, which have killed dozens of insurgents including some high-ranking al-Qaida operatives, are running at record levels — a sign of America’s impatience with Pakistan’s inaction in some parts of the frontier.

Although they are allies in the war against al-Qaida, the recent events are a reminder that the two countries’ long-term strategic interests are not always in sync. As next year’s date for the start of the US drawdown from Afghanistan approaches, that gulf is only getting wider.

The US seeks an Afghanistan free of Taleban fighters and wants Pakistan to help by attacking them on its side of the border. Pakistan is hedging that when the Americans go home, the Taleban will still be a major power – and one amenable to its anti-Indian agenda – so wants to keep them as friends.

The US has pressured Pakistan to strike not only its enemy, the Pakistani Taleban, but also Haqqani network militants who attack the US on the Afghan side of the border

The Pakistani government provides vital intelligence tips that help the CIA drone strikes. But such cooperation, to the extent that it becomes known in Pakistan, puts the government at risk of looking impotent in the eyes of its own people: A foreign power that many believe is an enemy of Islam is firing missiles and rockets on their territory.

In the most recent known strike, a US missile killed five German militants taking shelter in a house in North Waziristan on Monday, intelligence officials said. That region has been named as the source of a European terror plot that has prompted American authorities to issue a travel advisory. One or more German citizens are reported to be linked to the plot.

There are renewed concerns about the stability of Pakistan’s civilian government, which is struggling to deal with the aftermath of the worst flooding in the country’s history. President Asif Ali Zardari is desperately unpopular, resented by many as a US stooge who got the job on a sympathy vote after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto.

The Pakistanis closed the main NATO supply route last week to protest a NATO helicopter attack that killed three Pakistani border guards. The alliance apologized for the attack, which it described as an act of self-defence. It was the third time in a less than a week that foreign forces had flown into Pakistani airspace.

There have been four attacks on stalled convoys since then — the latest one killing four people on Monday, underlining an uncomfortable reality: The Taleban and the Pakistan government’s interests are strangely aligned at present in seeking to punish the United States and NATO.

Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department policy planner, said he does not see the current situation as necessarily a turning point.

“This is one more step in a drum beat toward a harder line against Pakistan, but it’s not, as far as I can tell, a fork in the road or something along those lines,” Markey said.

“What we may be seeing increasingly, particularly in the counter-terrorism community within this administration, is a greater willingness to push the envelope because they have less patience with the prospect of actually transforming Pakistan’s strategic behaviour.”

American officials said the increased military operations along the border and CIA strikes farther inland were a logical outgrowth of better intelligence and targeting information flowing from sources inside and outside Pakistan. At the same time, they represent a calculated risk that the tense partnership between Washington and Islamabad can withstand the inevitable backlash.

Both US and Pakistani officials predicted the Torkham border crossing would reopen within a few days.

Pakistani officials note they have aided US officials with the recent surge in drone strikes to keep the pressure on militants in North Waziristan while the overstretched Pakistani military is engaged with flood relief.

They say the drone attacks are a combined effort of “US signals intelligence with Pakistani human intelligence.”

The US shares everything from Predator drone observation feeds to satellite intelligence with the Pakistanis at three intelligence “fusion” centres inside Pakistan – in Quetta, Peshawar, and the frontier town of Landi Kotal, US officials in Pakistan said.

The Pakistanis say the cooperation, away from the public’s eye, has led to the record number of drone strikes this past month, and more than 100 joint raids this year alone with the CIA, such as the one that netted Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-ranking Taleban official after Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The Pakistanis further point out that while about half the September drone strikes were aimed at Haqqani militant network targets in the town of Dhata Khel, the other half were targeted at traditional Pakistan enemies — the Pakistani Taleban and Uzbek militants in the town of Mir Ali. They cited this as evidence that the US and Pakistan have a close relationship behind the scenes.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the US remains committed to building closer ties to Pakistan, recognising that the recent floods have caused the Pakistani military to divert resources and attention away from its campaign against extremists.

“We are quite satisfied with the level of cooperation and coordination that we have with Pakistan,” Crowley said Monday. “We’ve had many, many direct high-level conversations. We’ve seen a shift in Pakistan’s thinking in recent months with a great deal of activity over the past year where Pakistan has recognised the threat that these extremists pose to its own security.”

He said these matters will be discussed later this month when senior Pakistani government officials visit Washington.

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